Michigan is in the process of selecting a new director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Unlike most directors of cabinet-level state agencies, who are appointed by the governor, the DNR director is hired by Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission (NRC), a practice dating to the early 1900s, to distance natural resource decisions from more short-term political forces.
The NRC is slated to interview six candidates on April 19. Michigan citizens would be well-served if the commissioners evaluated candidates on their understanding of and support for the following principles.
Principle #1: Private property rights enhance environmental quality.
The evidence is overwhelming that private property and environmental conservation are not incompatible. Indeed, all over the world, it is apparent that the worst environmental disasters — such as the refusal to thin overcrowded forests in the Western United States, resulting in devastating wildfires — occur in places where common ownership prevails over private ownership. A new DNR director should understand this, and eschew any knee-jerk bias against private property.
The DNR director should reject the failed policy of continued expansion of state land ownership. The idea that the state will do a better job of managing property than the private sector simply is not true. In fact, the DNR cannot even pay its taxes on the property it currently holds title to — not exactly the sign of a responsible landlord.
Principle #2: Command-and-control regulation raises costs and reduces benefits.
Regulations should not dictate the methods by which results must be achieved. Government is least equipped to determine the most efficient means of achieving a particular outcome. Industries and individuals have the greatest incentive to find the most effective means of meeting standards, and should be allowed the utmost flexibility to do so. A new DNR director should endorse this approach.
Moreover, the level of regulation is often uncritically regarded as a measure of government effectiveness, and used to justify ever-larger budgets and to enhance agency power. New regulations should reject this approach. They should be based upon sound science, and judged on whether they actually improve upon the effectiveness of existing rules, taking into consideration their level of interference in the marketplace. A new DNR director should pledge to hold staff accountable to these standards, and should commit to reviewing existing regulations to determine whether they meet them.
New regulations should only be adopted through the Michigan Administrative Procedures Act rather than simply rewriting department policy. The act provides a system of checks and balances involving the Legislature and the public.
Principle #3: Privatization is superior to government monopoly.
The new DNR director should encourage privatization of public services both to reduce government spending and to improve efficiency. For example, there are numerous opportunities for privatization of services in the state park system, such as janitorial and security services. There also are opportunities for private capital investment in the state park system. This would add to the value and character of Michigan parks.
Principle #4: Land stewardship should not preclude public access.
The new DNR director should favor open access to all natural resources held in trust by the state for Michigan citizens. The agency should not bow to the political whims of special interest groups who seek to restrict use of government-controlled land by the public.
Principle #5: Government officials should spend tax dollars as if they were their own.
The director should stretch taxpayers’ money as far as possible. He or she should continually evaluate whether nonessential functions of the agency can be eliminated. Essential functions within the department should be benchmarked against best practices in other states.
Principle #6: Sound science is the foundation of sound public policy.
Wishful thinking and emotional arguments have no place in agency policy. Reasonable individuals can disagree on scientific theory. However, the director should make every effort to base resource management on verifiable, measurable scientific evidence that stands the test of time.
Principle #7: Accountability is a mark of true leadership.
Finally the new DNR director should not avoid accountability or seek deniability to prevent criticism. An effective DNR director must have the courage to make tough decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens of the state, even when agency employees or special interests disagree.
Russ Harding is the former director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, and is currently senior environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland.